An accountant in a recent writing training lamented that his clients never seem to respond to his emails. “I’m trying to complete their audited financial statements and I can’t do it without getting basic information from them. I keep writing that I need them to send me the open items and they just don’t respond. What am I doing wrong?” he said.
Of course, we all want people to respond to our emails. But why should they? The reader must want to respond. Whether she feels compelled to respond or does so cheerfully, she must feel that she has a good reason to take time from her busy day and send you a return email.
The Reader Must Want to Respond
To make the reader want to respond, we must be persuasive. That means showing the reader what’s in it for him or her to do as we wish. Both the subject line and the message must answer the basic question, “What’s in it for me?” This question is sometimes referred to as "everyone's favorite radio station": WIIFM. Highlight the benefits to the reader of paying attention to your message. Warn of the costs of not paying attention.
For example, I asked the accountant we spoke of above what would happen to his client if he did not send in the open items. “He wouldn’t have his statements on time.” And what is the consequence of that? “He might be in breach of his covenants with his lenders.” Now that’s a cost! Perhaps his initial email will be a simple request for the items; however, if the client persists in stonewalling him, he might bring out the big guns and say, “If these statements are not completed on time, you will be in breach of covenant.” That is likely to get a response.
Using the Subject Line to Trigger a Response
The subject line in particular must give the reader a reason for opening the email. In the Worktalk trainings, we discuss the Three Ps: Purpose, Person, and Point. You can use the subject line to highlight any one of the Three Ps persuasively. For example, if your purpose is to request action, write “Action required: Need documents by 8/15 to avoid breach” or a similar message.
You can also target the reader’s hot buttons in the subject line. For example, if you need a piece of equipment repaired, you could write your manager a subject line that says, “Equipment needs repair.” This touches the hot button of costs, which most people will be glad to put off for a few days. However, if you write, “Safety alert: Equipment needs repair” or “Possible line closure: Equipment needs repair”, will you get a quicker response? Refer to topics about which the reader cares deeply.
Saying What You Need Is Not Enough
Sometimes people think that if they write, “I need to receive the documents by August 15,” the reader will interpret this as a request. This may be an error. In terms of purpose, stating what you need falls into the category of information. When you say, “I need you to do x,” you are informing the other person of your need. Well, he has needs too, and he may need not to do x.
Don’t just say what you need. Step up and make a request. Couch it in terms of the reader’s benefit and give it a deadline. So our accountant could write, “In order to complete your audited financial statements before the deadline, we need to receive these open items by August 15. Please send them before that date.” Just adding the request at the end makes it far more likely that the reader will respond.
So how can you increase your odds of getting a response to your emails?
- Show the reader what’s in it for him
- Point out costs and benefits
- Target hot buttons
- Use the subject line persuasively
- Make a request with a deadline
© Elizabeth Danziger 2015
Read Writamins on these topics:
Choosing the Right Word
Thoughts on Writing
Writing Within Organizations
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